NFL Preview: NFC

Steve O Speak

NFC East:

1. New York Giants

2. Philadelphia Eagles*

3. Washington Redskins

4. Dallas Cowboys

This could be the league’s toughest division (though the AFC and NFC Souths will have something to say about that), as all four teams are capable of challenging for a playoff spot. Right now the boys in blue seem to be the favorite to win the East. The Giants have one of the toughest defenses in the league led by their dominant front four. They have some questions at linebacker and in the defensive backfield, but they have some young players that might just answer those questions. On offense the Giants have one of the best offensive lines and the league’s best running game. I’d also expect rookie wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to step up early, and become a favorite target of Eli Manning. The Eagles still have one of the leagues better defenses, though they are not as elite as they once were. Donovan McNabb remains one of the best best quarterbacks in the league, and as long as he is behind center the Eagles remain a threat in the East. The Redskins added to a top 5 defense, by spending $100 million dollars on Albert Haynesworth and using their 1st round pick on Brian Orakpo. Washington’s front seven could be the best in the league, and good enough to force the Skins into the playoff picture. On offense Washington has a number of play makers, but questions along the offensive line and at quarterback hold this team back. The Dallas Cowboys could be opening the NFL’s newest and biggest (not to mention most expensive) stadium with a dud. On offense the Cowboys have three talented running backs and tight end Jason Witten, but unless they are going to run the Wishbone or T formation, Dallas could be in trouble. The Cowboys’ lack of a receiving corps is a major problem going into the season. On defense the Cowboys aren’t nearly as good as their NFC East counterparts, and that will likely earn them a spot in the cellar of the division.

NFC North:

1. Chicago Bears

2. Minnesota Vikings

3. Green Bay Packers

4. Detroit Lions

The NFC North is going back in time about 10 years, when the Lions, Packers, and Vikings all had high powered passing attacks (and the division was known as the NFC Central). Now even the Bears (oh my) are getting into the act, with the addition of strong-armed quarterback Jay Cutler. Chicago could use another receiver or two, but they have the talent on offense to do some damage in the NFC. The Bears defense is dominate like always, and should be enough to overcome the other talented teams in the North. The Vikings added their own gunslinger in Brett Favre this off season. Favre, along with new receiver Percy Harvin, should help balance out the Vikings offense led by stud running back Adrian Peterson. Minnesota features a stingy defense, especially against the run. The Packers defense should be improved this year, but this team will live and die by Aaron Rodgers throwing arm. Green Bay will need some improvements at running back and on the offensive line to really compete for a playoff spot. The good news for Detroit is they can only improve from their 0-16 record last season. While they made some solid moves this off season, I don’t think it will be enough to get them out of the basement in the North. Lions fans can look forward to rookie quarterback Matt Stafford playing pitch and catch with uber receiver Calvin Johnson, as something fun to watch.

NFC South:

1. Atlanta Falcons

2. Carolina Panthers*

3. New Orleans Saints

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The South is another tough division, but with Matt Ryan having a year of experience the Atlanta Falcons are the team to beat. Atlanta’s defense should be vastly improved, bolstered by a strong defensive draft. The Panthers rely on their ferocious defense to get turnovers and shorten the field, but they aren’t slouches on offense as well. Carolina has a great ground game, to go along with the NFL’s most explosive wideout, Steve Smith. If Jake Delhomme can shake off his implosion in the playoffs last season, the Panthers should be looking for some redemption come January. The Saints have one of the most prolific passing attacks with QB Drew Brees and a stable of quality receivers. Unfortunately until they add a number one tail back or a Top-10 defense they won’t vault ahead of the Falcons and Panthers in the standings. The Buccaneers should be better on offense this year, with additions like Leftwich, Winslow and Ward. I don’t think they are good enough to compete for the division (or the wild card) until they have either a feature back or a top quarterback. On defense Tampa Bay had a lot of turnover, but not for the good. Their defense lacks play makers that made the Buccaneers so fearsome in the past.

NFC West:

1. Arizona Cardinals

2. San Francisco 49ers

3. Seattle Seahawks

4. St. Louis Rams

Arizona is hoping that QB Kurt Warner has at least one more year left in the tank, as they hope to forego the runner-up curse that has plagued Super Bowl losers for years. Warner will have plenty of weapons to work with, including three 1,000 yard receivers. The Cardinals running game should improve with rookie “Beanie” Wells getting the majority of carries. Even without rookie WR Michael Crabtree who is still holding out, the 49ers are a team on the rise. They still have questions at quarterback, but other offensive weapons are emerging to go along with RB Frank Gore. Head Coach Mike Singletary brings a lot of fire to his team, that will be best displayed by his new improved defense. Seattle improved their receiving corps this off season, but questions remain at running back and along the offensive line. Also can QB Matt Hasselbeck rebound from 2008 and stay healthy is a question that needs answering. Their defense is improved this year, but big holes remain in their secondary that opponents will be able to exploit. The Rams are another team that is on the rise, but just doesn’t have the talent to compete this year. A strong draft class and some solid free agent signings should improve the Rams on both sides of the ball. While the team is improving, its hard to peg the Rams for more than 5 wins this season.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson. Peterson is the best player in the NFL right now. He is the perfect combination of size and speed that can take any play the distance. Runners up: WR Larry Fitzgerald, WR Steve Smith, RB Matt Forte

Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware. Ware gets after the quarterback as well as anyone who has ever played the game. What’s even more impressive is his level of production considering a weaker supporting cast than most other top defensive players. Runners up: DT Albert Haynesworth, DE Julius Peppers, LB Patrick Willis

Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Chris “Beanie” Wells. No other rookie could have a bigger impact than if Wells can provide a ground threat to go along with Arizona’s aerial assault. Wells should have plenty of running room to rush for over 1,200 yards, since safeties will be forced to play off the line against the Cardinals. Runners up: WR Hakeem Nicks, RB LeSean McCoy, OT Jason Smith, WR Percy Harvin

Defensive Rookie of the Year: LB/DE Brian Orakpo. Orakpo will give the Redskins what they have lacked the last couple of years, a dominate pass rusher. He should have plenty of room to work with, since Haynesworth will clog up the middle. Orakpo has the talent to be among the leagues elite pass rushers, and he should show that from day one. Runners up: DT Peria Jerry, LB Clay Matthews, LB James Laurinaitis.

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